Continuing our ongoing First Contact series, today we’re gonna look back at the 1576 encounter between the English and the Inuit of Baffin Island. The details of the meet-up were recorded by one Christopher Hall, a member of a Martin Frobisher-led expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage to China.
Upon first landing on Baffin Island and climbing a small hill in order to view the bay below, Frobisher and his men initially thought the surrounding waters were teeming with a novel form of seal. But upon closer inspection, these seaborne forms turned out to be Inuits in kayaks. And they were none-too-happy with the presence of the Westerners, who they instantly regarded as enemies. The landing party was chased back to their boat, the Gabriel, and Frobisher contemplated skedaddling at once. But Hall, an amateur anthropologist of sorts, volunteered to go back ashore and parlay with the Inuits (a meeting facilitated with an exchange of hostages). This led to an amicable encounter, in which Hall was able to record 17 Inuit words by pointing to objects. He also made note of the Inuits’ physical similarities to some of Genghis Khan’s most famous subjects:
They be like Tartars, with long black hair, broad faces, and flat noses, and tawney in color, wearing seal skins, and so do the women, not differing in the fashion, but the women are marked in the face with blue streaks down the cheeks, and round about the eyes. Their boats are made all of seal skins, with a keel of wood within the skin; the proportion of them is like a Spanish shallop, save only they be flat on the bottom, and sharp at both ends.
As it turns out, the Inuits were initially right to be afraid of Frobisher. After five of his men disappeared while returning an Inuit hostage—most likely on their own volition—Frobisher decided to split. But before he departed, he managed to kidnap a poor Inuit kayaker by using tinkling bells as a lure, then snatching him up with a hook on a pole. Frobisher dragged this Inuit (pictured above) all the way back to England, where he publicly displayed the captive as a “strange man of Cathay.” Neither English weather nor English food agreed with the Inuit, and he died within weeks of landing in London. Which, sadly, was probably the best fate he could have hoped for at that time—life as a sideshow in Stuart England must’ve been bleak, indeed.